This is the ninth contribution to His Grace’s emergency team ministry during the coronavirus pestilence. It comes from Mike Stallard, who has been in education all his life, and is now retired.
Last Sunday morning I woke up angry.
On our village church noticeboard was a document, written in ‘ancient’ script, from the Bishop of Huntingdon and approved by the bishop of Ely, that the Right of Presentation of the new vicar had been suspended for five years.
Was this an excuse to close our village church? Was it a cheap trick to prevent anyone who did not comply being inducted? Was it so the Bishop could choose the next priest in charge? And then make sure they were obedient to everything they were told?
That bit was not on the piece of pseudo parchment.
I felt like nailing my theses to the church door!
It is, in fact, a Norman west door with the zig-zags that might (or might not) have been cut with Norman axes. The windows are Early English, larger than Norman, and pointed at the top. In the 1200s, there was a Fenland flood and large parts of the church building were destroyed. They were replaced with decorated windows and a squat little tower. Then, just before the Reformation, some perpendicular windows were added to give extra light.
In 1500, ours was a parish church for the local graziers in the rich marshland meadows. By and large they were mediæval Catholics looking to adapt.
But in Victorian times, all this changed. Stained glass was ‘replaced’ with Victorian figures. The chancel was added with ‘genuine’ mediæval windows and a tiled roof (not lead). Inside, the choir was made with machined wood, as were the new Victorian pews. The saints in the windows were Victorian men and women dressed in ‘genuine’ mediæval costume straight out of Holman Hunt.
Subtly, there had been a revolution over the years.
The 20th century saw the two expensive new altar Prayer Books and a new Bible. And at the turn of the millennium, a partition so that a small area could be heated and made draughtproof. It had comfy chairs, a nice little altar and two tiny candles for some 10 people. And a few games for the all important children. On the other side of the nave was a panelled-off area with the all important toilet and a tiny kitchen. A cupboard held the folding tables for the coffee morning that never happened.
We are nowhere near the original purpose of this ancient building, which was built to make sure villagers earned their way to heaven by obeying the will of God, the most Holy Trinity.
What is being offered today to people who really don’t care about God any more? A comfy little nook in a smelly, tumbledown building on a dangerous corner?
Somewhere to go for funerals? The local Irish travellers turn up for these in droves as the vicar, in 19th-century surplice, coloured stole and cassock, leads the way for the cortege through the village stopping all the traffic along the busy road. She could not visit her parish – women doing cold-calling especially at night is not sensible. She had three other parishes to run as well – all of them bursting at the seams with new arrivals (we have no fewer than 70 new houses being built at the moment). She did her best for some 20 years and must have watched the slow decline as, one by one, her handful of faithful died off. Now she too has gone.
It is no use quoting chunks from the Bible. When Muslims quote the Qur’an, it convinces nobody who is not a Muslim. And to most people the Bible is just as alien. It is no use talking about Jesus, either. What use is he in a time of plague when you can die just by going to Tesco? God? Terrible old man with a beard ready to zap people he doesn’t like? As one five-year-old said, “I have no need for that hypothesis.” Richard Dawkins and Darwin did for God ages ago. Carols, Mother’s Day, Hallowe’en are all that is left. And they do not make a religion. Easter, the day of the Resurrection? Church locked for coronavirus – but it was last year too. You know it makes sense.
“Have you not heard?” said the man on the trapeze, “God is dead.”
Why am I writing this? Is it just a moan?
I read the articles on this outstanding blog. I read the witty and clever comments too. And, yes, I laugh at the best jokes and uptick them, too. I learn a lot. It is all still there, ready to spring into life like the seedlings in spring.
What I do not see – yet – is any realistic attempt (apart from St Cyprian) to reach out to the situation in our village, which, I suspect, represents a lot of other parishes in the land. To do that, you have to start where people actually are. To meet the needs which they know about. (Death? Safety? Loneliness? Recognition of their importance? How to be a gentleman? What’s the point?)
How do you do that?
If we can crack that one, then we can expect a very exciting renewal. Once we Christians are mobilised – watch out, world!